Carl R. Weinberg is Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, where he teaches in the History Department and the Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) program. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I (Southern IL Press, 2005) and is completing a manuscript entitled Red Dynamite: Creationism and Anticommunism in Modern America (under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press).
On July 7, 2017, a Facebook friend shared a message from fellow historian Nancy MacLean. “Friends,” it began, “I really, really NEED YOUR HELP.” Acknowledging that what followed might sound “nutty,” MacLean went on to allege that right-wing Koch brothers “operatives” and their hired hands in academia were trying to “kill” her new book, Democracy in Chains The Deep History of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017). Through what she called an “interlinked set of calculated hit jobs,” the Koch “team of professors” were attacking her book in seemingly “respectable” venues and failing to disclose their Koch funding. Meanwhile, the Koch brothers were using their “bottomless wealth” to manipulate the Google search process. Save me, MacLean wrote, from this reputation “assassination.”[i]
I have long admired Nancy MacLean and been inspired by her first book, Behind the Mask of Chivalry (1994), on the Second Ku Klux Klan, in Athens, Georgia. I used it when I taught about the Klan, just up the road, at North Georgia College, in Dahlonega, Georgia. She is a brilliant storyteller. And she offered a powerful Marxist-oriented analytical narrative that properly placed the second Klan in the mainstream of US society and politics. I was especially interested in MacLean’s work on the “radical right” because I am finishing up my own book on American creationism and anticommunism, and I wondered how her account might intersect with my own. Precisely because of my respect for her earlier work, I had mixed feelings about this appeal—it sounded conspiratorial—not for nothing did MacLean use the word “nutty.” It also seemed odd that MacLean did not take the position that when you publish a book on a controversial topic, you expect criticism, and you let the chips fall where they may. But I was curious to see what her book had to say. I first read the countless comments slung back and forth between MacLean’s supporters and the scholars who rushed to the defense of the book’s central figure, Nobel Prize–winning “public choice” economist James Buchanan. At that point, I was determined to avoid a replay of what I recall was comedian Bill Murray’s standard opening line in his film reviews on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update”: “Now, I haven’t seen the movie but . . .” So I read the book.
Since the subjects of my own work, from George McCready Price to William Bell Riley to Henry Morris to Tim LaHaye, are fond of attributing world history to the machinations of evil individuals, I have spent a bit of time thinking about what makes conspiratorial thinking distinctive. It is not just that there are people who meet in secret and plan to do bad things—that happens all the time. Rather, as Richard Hofstadter puts it, it is the view that the conspirators are “demonic forces of almost transcendent power.”[ii] Or as cultural theorist Mark Fenster writes, it is the belief that “a secret, omnipotent individual or group covertly controls the political and social order . . .”[iii] The words “transcendent” and “omnipotent” both convey the idea that conspirators have the capacity to impose their will on the course of events. All consequences are intended. They have God-like power.
Since Marxists are often taken for conspiracy theorists, it is worth clarifying that the conspiratorial and Marxist perspectives are different. Marxists recognize the immense power wielded by ruling wealthy classes, but they also argue that working people have tremendous power, at least in potential form. Capitalists unwittingly give workers that collective power by bringing working people together in large numbers in factories, mines, and mills, creating the infrastructure necessary for large-scale production and trade, and transforming the means of communication. Capitalists, that is, create their own “gravediggers.”[iv] In contrast to the conspiracy theorist who believes that events occur due to intentional acts of will, Marxists argue that much of what happens is the result of unintended consequences. In a book that otherwise sought to undermine the appeal of Marxism, philosopher and historian of science Karl Popper recognized this very feature of Marxism when he wrote that Marx rejected the idea that the negative effects of capitalism were due to a “cunning conspiracy” and argued instead that they were the results of “unwanted social consequences of actions . . . .” Marx, Popper wrote, was “one of the first critics of the conspiracy theory.” [v]
I learned a lot from Democracy in Chains—among other things, the political uses of public choice economics, James Buchanan’s role in bolstering Pinochet’s regime in Chile, the hidden history of George Mason University, and the amazing student strike led by Barbara Johns in Prince Edward County, Virginia, that helped to bring about the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. I especially appreciated MacLean’s discussion of Buchanan’s coauthored book, Anarchy in Academia (1973), based on his experiences teaching at UCLA in 1968–69, which did presciently anticipate the “corporatization” of higher education.[vi] It brought to mind the various ways that Christian conservatives used politicized language to describe an alleged American moral decline, as when Reverend Jerry Falwell described events on American campuses in Listen America! (1980) as “sexual anarchy.”[vii]
But as it turns out, the conspiratorial tone of MacLean’s Facebook message accurately reflects that of the book as a whole.[viii] It is evident even before you read the first page. First there is the wording in the book’s subtitle—“Stealth Plan.” Then there is the cover photo, which depicts a group of well-groomed, suited, older white men, puffing on cigars in the classic smoke-filled room.[ix] Then there is the book jacket text, where we learn of a “secretive cause,” a “vast many-armed apparatus” (in the book proper we are introduced to the term “Kochtopus”), and a “sinister story.” Once we begin the book, we quickly encounter “demonic” language. The tactics Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker used against public workers were “more devilishly lethal in their cumulative impact than anything the antiunion cause had theretofore produced.” The concept of a “constitutional revolution” was a “more diabolical aspect of Buchanan’s thinking.” US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a product of the Koch brothers’ long game, was, according to former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), “Lucifer in the flesh.” And Buchanan himself was an “evil genius.”[x] In my own research area, when someone writes about the “devil,” they mean the devil, Satan himself, who is real. MacLean is using these terms metaphorically. But her choice of language cannot but help resonate with the storehouse of meanings accumulated over the centuries. Whatever she intends, her language tends to remove James Buchanan, Charles Koch, and their associates from the everyday world of politics and place them in an almost otherworldly “evil” realm. This is the opposite of what MacLean so brilliantly achieved in Behind the Mask of Chivalry.
Her previous scholarly work on the second Ku Klux Klan also comes to mind when encountering MacLean’s conspiratorial characterization of the Buchanan/Koch “Stealth Plan” as a “fifth-column assault.” To her credit, MacLean openly grapples with her own discomfort in using this Spanish Civil War–derived term, fully aware of how it has been used by right-wing forces seeking to disempower working people. But she insists it is the best choice available and that it conveys the sense in which the Buchanan/Koch plot is not a “classical social movement,” in that it “knows it can never win majority support.” Rather, she suggests, the Kochtopus is “more akin to an occupying force than to an open group engaged in the usual give-and-take of politics.”[xi] (xxxi) And yet, secrecy was a hallmark of the Klan, even during its heyday, when it may have had up to five million members. They issued public statements and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. But they also hid their faces, and concealed their affiliation with well-known politicians. They were confident in their ideas, but also fearful of exposure. Indeed, it might be said that all social movements are a combination of public confidence and fearful secrecy. Moreover, it’s hard not to hear in MacLean’s formulation about the “usual give and take” an echo of Richard Hofstadter’s concept of the “paranoid style” in American politics. The “central situation” leading to “paranoid” thinking, according to Hofstadter, is “a confrontation of opposed interests, which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.”[xii] I am not arguing that MacLean is engaging in the “paranoid style”—I agree with historian Leo Ribuffo that Hofstadter’s concept “should be buried with a stake in its heart.”[xiii] But there is a sense in her comment that some political actors—including social movement actors—are engaging in “normal” politics, whereas others are somehow beyond the pale.
Hints of the conspiratorial element of “transcendent power” are also lurking in MacLean’s account. Describing Buchanan’s time at UCLA, MacLean writes that this experience “left a far deeper legacy, one that ultimately explains why, in our time, governors and state legislators under the influence of the capitalist radical right have been moving aggressively to transform higher education . . .” It is one thing to argue that Buchanan played an important role in developing the ideological framework for current attacks on public education. We now know, thanks to MacLean, that he did. It is another thing to ascribe unique causality to this ideological framework. Similarly, MacLean writes of Charles Koch that he did “not just become a convert to the ultra-capitalist radical right. He is the sole reason why this movement may yet alter the trajectory of the United States in ways that would be profoundly disturbing even to the somewhat undemocratic James Madison, I believe—and would unquestionably take the ‘demos’ out of American democratic governance.”[xiv] Charles Koch is clearly a pivotal figure and as Jane Mayer and others have documented, Koch organizations—such as Americans for Prosperity—have played a key role in shaping public debate over public sector unionism, Obamacare, climate change, and other issues.[xv] To be sure, MacLean does not say that Charles Koch is capable of singlehandedly transforming the American political system. But it’s hard not to come away from the book with the sense that of all the factors that have led to our current predicament, Koch, and in her telling, his intellectual inspiration, James Buchanan, loom the largest.
Perhaps too large—in that there is little sense here of how non-billionaires can make a difference, something that MacLean has effectively chronicled in her previous work. Take, for instance, her second book, Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (2006). There she challenged the conventional story of the civil rights movement as focused on formal legal rights and chronicled how African Americans and those inspired by them, including Latinos, Asian Americans, and women of all racial backgrounds, blasted apart the existing structure of job discrimination. She then shows how neoconservatives successfully retold this story as one of an unfortunate turn to affirmative action, which amounted to giving “handouts” to the undeserving, and explains that deindustrialization wiped out many gains that workers made. Still, MacLean retains confidence that “a new wave of activists will likely find creative ways to navigate daunting new conditions.”[xvi] That confidence seems diminished in Democracy in Chains.
That feeling of relative helplessness before the awesome power of the Koch brothers and their retainers is tied, it seems to me, not only to a conspiratorial outlook but to the absence of MacLean’s earlier Marxist-leaning perspective. In place of it MacLean arrives at something resembling an early twenty-first century “vital centrism,” situating herself between the two “extremes” of left and right.[xvii] In positing Keynesian economics as a progressive alternative to Buchanan’s Virginia variant of public choice economics, MacLean argues that Keynesian policies implemented in the 1930s and 40s “saved liberal democracy in the United States from the rival challenges of fascism and Communism in the face of capitalism’s most cataclysmic collapse.” Along the same lines, MacLean claims that if Buchanan’s ideal constitutional order, which enshrined unrivaled corporate domination, had prevailed in the 1930s, “the United States might well have experienced a revolution from the right or the left, instead of pulling off the achievement of being the sole liberal democracy to survive the global catastrophe.” [xviii] And yet MacLean’s work on the Klan in the 1920s shows just how deeply embedded in “liberal democracy” this proto-fascist formation was. Just as her work on the fight for jobs shows how violent that same “democracy” was, two decades after the end of World War II, toward those who pushed for meaningful citizenship. The Marxist concept of bourgeois democracy, with its sharp limits and contradictions, seems apt here.
Moving into the center also pushes MacLean into the odd position of holding up or reclaiming from the libertarians none other than founding father James Madison as a counterweight to John C. Calhoun. As she clearly acknowledges, Madison, a wealthy slaveholder, was no democrat. She contends, however, that he “aimed to enable lasting majority self-government, with protection for minority interests, but not domination by them.”[xix] And yet here is Madison in perhaps his most famous contribution, Federalist No. 10, on how the new constitution will prevent the spread of social movements from below: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.” [xx] It’s almost Charles Koch–worthy.
If we abandon the conspiratorial framework for viewing the Koch brothers and all other right-wing tendencies in current political life (including the murderous fascists who showed up in Charlottsville, Virginia the other day), we can see more clearly the possibilities for surmounting them. There are men (and women) meeting in smoke-filled (and smoke-free) rooms. There are secret agreements. There are code words. But there are also limits to the power of the billionaires and their allies. Even the election of 2016 was as a reflection of those limits. One of the projects dear to the hearts of Koch and company is getting rid of Social Security. And yet as MacLean notes, the new president is not carrying that program forward.
It was not just Koch-funded Republicans, secretly nurtured by James Buchanan’s ideas, but Clinton-led Democrats, who carried out the most deepgoing and public attack on the post–World War II welfare state (as meager as it was), ending “welfare as we know it” in 1996 with that miracle of double-speak, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. To be sure, there was big money at play here, too. The intellectual inspiration there was Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, funded by the Olin Foundation.[xxi] But the real turning point—as MacLean briefly alludes to in Democracy in Chains—was the recession of 1973–74, which brought to a decisive halt the three-decade postwar economic boom and forced capitalists and their retainers across the political spectrum to find ways to drive down wages in the interests of driving up profits. Two decades later, candidate Hillary Clinton’s arrogant dismissal of half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” (and some of them as “irredeemable”) ignored the real pain in working-class communities around the country, and the unintended consequence was President Donald Trump. As much as his working-class supporters might be influenced by libertarian rhetoric about “makers” and “takers” (and other nasty ideas), they know that they need Social Security. And as MacLean explains in Freedom Is Not Enough, whatever divisions among working people persist—and there are plenty—we are not going back to the 1950s. Over the last half-century, there has been a sea-change in the consciousness of working people. It is harder today for the James Buchanans, Charles Kochs and others to foster divisions based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or national origin. It is consequently easier to build a movement to take power out of the hands of all the billionaires. There will be many unintended and welcome consequences to come.
[i] Doug Henwood, “Defend Nancy MacLean!,” https://lbo-news.com/2017/07/07/defend-nancy-maclean/ (August 16, 2017). Not that there is any controversy over whether this appeal was actually posted on Facebook, but I do have a screenshot for anyone who does need evidence. I’ve cited a public source here, since not everyone, at least not yet, has a Facebook account.
[ii] Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), 29.
[iii] Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 1.
[iv] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2008), 46.
[v] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2 (London: George Routledge & Sons, date?), 94; Karl Popper, “The Conspiracy Theory of Society,” in David Coady, ed., Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), 14n1.
[vi] Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains, 103–8.
[vii] Jerry Falwell, Listen, America! (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 71.
[viii] For the one critique that has taken MacLean to task on this point, see ”Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them. How not to write about “radical” libertarians,” Vox.com, July 14, 2017, https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/7/14/15967788/democracy-shackles-james-buchanan-intellectual-history-maclean (August 15, 2017).
[ix] According to the back jacket, the cover uses a stock photograph from Getty Images.
[x] Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains, xvi, xxv, xxviii, 42.
[xi] Ibid., xxxv.
[xii] Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine (November 1964): 86, my emphasis.
[xiii] Leo Ribuffo, “Donald Trump and the `Paranoid Style’ in American (Intellectual) Politics,” issforum.org June 13, 2017, https://issforum.org/roundtables/policy/1-5an-paranoid (August 15, 2017).
[xiv] Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains, 103, 127 (my emphasis).
[xv] See, for instance, Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (New York: Doubleday, 2016), 214–19.
[xvi] Nancy MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 347.
[xvii] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Not Left, Not Right, but a Vital Center,” New York Times, April 4, 1948, http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/11/26/specials/schlesinger-centermag.html (August 15, 2017).
[xviii] Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains, xxix–xxx, 228 (my emphasis)
[xix] Ibid., 81.
[xx] James Madison, “The Same Subject Continued The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection” From the New York Packet. Friday, November 23, 1787,” (The Federalist Papers: No. 10), http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp (August 15, 2017)
[xxi] Jane Mayer, Dark Money, 112.